Ok, some thoughts. I think some of it was also certainly tasteful porn. Let us consider the alleged “safe” nude: 16th century Italy. Venus of Urbino , say.
How was this actually received? What kind of emotional response did it evoke? What was erotic at the time? In a way I suspect that at one level our understanding of these is blinded by our modern notions: I think we’re heirs to a Victorian mindset which not quite intuitively shields us from old smut. One of these notions is our handy modern English differentiation between ‘naked’ and ‘nude’: Kenneth Clarke (influential art historian of days of yore) explained, for example, that the naked figure is deprived of clothes and experiences a kind of embarrassment that most of us feel at this condition, while the nude had no uncomfortable overtone.
And this is how we get first year students to sit in their seats quietly while we look at these things. “This isn’t pornography or dirty—this is art.” However, the distinction doesn’t exist in Italian—there is just one word, naked, nude, it’s all nudo. By forgetting this distinction it lets understand that these images could have all kind of functions and meanings, sometimes apparently contradictory.
In past art history scholars sometimes jumped through amazing symbolic hoops to erotically neutralize these images. But “art” at the time didn’t exist in this particular purified and sanitary realm away from the world of emotional and even physical responses.
BUT erotic at that time perhaps wasn’t on the other hand completely synonymous with our concept of that, either. What kind of difference was there between our notions of erotic and pornographic?
Other more recent problems in earlier art history: For example, traditional art history for a long time talked at length about the classical beauty of the nude like this or in baroque complicated iconographic/symbolic discussions in order to avoid the elephant in the parlor. So the Venus of Urbino, say, was, according to a lot of art historians, not a regular women but a goddess, Venus, and then not even just the sensual Venus of mythology but some cooked-up celestial/cosmic Venus, a reference to the joys of marital fidelity and safe things like that.
On the one hand, though, There’s clearly something marital about all of this.
In form (horizontal panel-- that form factor’s not typical) and content is relates closely to the cassoni panels of the previous century—the painted interior lids of marriage chests (usually commissioned by the groom or his family as a wedding gift and were used as sort of cedar chests for her nice clothes)
A bridal context explains some odd details of the picture: servants fussing around in a cassone. So on the one hand a signifier of marriage and procreation and all that. But what’s the difference, in those days, between “marital” and “naughty”? Isn’t marital just a functional and fruitful naughty?
But it’s not as easy as that—we don’t have the documentation to defend this entirely. Guidobaldo della Rovere bought the picture from Titian in 1538—the year in which he became Duke of Urbino, and in writing to his agent in Venice Guidobaldo just refers to the picture as “la donnna nuda”—the nude/naked woman. He was late in paying and was afraid Titian would go ahead and sell it to someone else. Vasari (big historian and near-contemporary documentarian) saw the picture a decade later and described it as una venere giovanetta—a young Venus, although it has none of Venus’ traditional attributes.
So maybe it refers to marriage—thus goddess of love with the doggie representing fidelity and the myrtle in the window sill (traditional marriage symbol) and cassoni and all that. BUT it was painted 4 years after Guildobaldo’s marriage to his 11 year-old at the time fiance. And it’s an absolutely contemporary setting with no attributes—nothing to connect it to Venus. Was Vasari just wrong? (he does tend towards the prudish)
Was it a little naughty? In Venice, especially there was a whole class of painting that they kept carefully covered up with velvet curtains in mixed company. We know of a pile of not-so generic “Genevras” and "Floras " painted and now received as portraits of hot women showing one breast and holding flowers , and we’re starting the generally accept that these are paintings of clients’ favorite professionals (apparently the name Flora was sort of the equivalent of Trixie in prostitution-rich Venice). And then there images similar to Titian’s, but with the nude woman outdoors asleep, one in the Hypnerotomachia Polifili in which the sleeping nude is about to be harassed by (putti? a satyr? can’t remember) or one by um. . . Giuliano (?) Campagnola, where the nude woman out in the countryside is turned away from us and seems to have her hand stuffed in her crotch in a non-pudica sort of way.
And Venice was, of course, home to the worlds first printed porn, with text by respectable author Aretino and images by respectable painter Giulio Romano (“I Modi”-- most/all copies destroyed although there was a bad copy that circulated a bit later).
Meanwhile. . . even IF she’s a goddess, does that really remove the problem? Consider the Aphrodite of Knidos(maybe Praxiteles, maybe not). Roman historian Pliny says that the people of island of Kos commissioned this and then balked and ordered instead one with clothes, and that the people of Knidos snatched it up and profited from it—it became very famous very fast and was a tourist attraction, apparently of sometime a filthy sort. Pliny notes that “some visitors were overcome with love for the statue” and that this love took a very sticky protein-stain sort of form. And that’s the most chaste of chaste classical nuder art, the Venus “pudica” type-- ‘modest’. Hah.
(I can like to more putatively SFW but probably not historically-so works!)